Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Tora Bora and the Myth of a Short War on Terror

(Slightly edited for grammar,10-5-04: DD)

Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist.

They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.

That's the enemy that attacked us. That's the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That's the enemy that is now in 60 countries, with stronger recruits.

Senator John Kerry, "First Bush-Kerry Presidential Debate", September 30, 2004

In December 2001, local Afghan forces supported by US special forces and airpower laid siege to the mountainous al-Qaeda stronghold of Tora Bora, in northeastern Afghanistan just a few miles from the Pakistani border. At the time, it was widely believed that Osama bin Laden himself, and many of his top deputies, were at Tora Bora. Eyewitness accounts and other information have since confirmed his presence in the area. For a week, Americans waited in eager anticipation for news of bin Laden's death or capture. Yet, when the battle finally ended, bin Laden was nowhere to be found. In the words of journalist and author Peter Bergen, "so was lost the last, best chance to capture al-Qaeda's leader, at a time when he was confined to an area of several dozen square miles."

The criticism voiced above by Senator Kerry echoes a widely-held sentiment. If only we had deployed American ground forces at Tora Bora, the argument goes, we could have caught bin Laden and decisively defeated al-Qaeda. To quote Bergen:

With only a small number of American "boots on the ground," the U.S. military chose to rely on the services of local Afghan proxies of uncertain loyalty and competence?a blunder that allowed many members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, to slip away. The blunder meant that, as a senior U.S. military official told me, "we don't know for sure when bin Laden disappeared."

Source: Peter Bergen, "The Long Hunt for Osama", Atlantic Monthly, October 2004

Is there merit to the criticism made by Kerry, Bergen and others? Did the Bush Administration blunder by not committing regular American ground forces at Tora Bora? Even if we had caught Osama, would it have had the decisive impact implied by Kerry?

A close reading of the available source material reveals that the issue of deploying American infantry to Tora Bora isn't nearly as simple as Senator Kerry makes it out to be.

1. The idea that we could have used American troops instead of Afghans flies in the face of the available facts. Contrary to Senator Kerry's assertion, the only "American military forces nearby and in the field" was a 700 man battalion of the 10th Mountain Division, available in Uzbekistan as a rapid reaction force. The al-Qaeda force at Tora Bora numbered 1,600-2,000 by Smucker's estimate, plus however many Afghan tribesmen would have joined them in fighting the infidel Americans. (Philip Smucker, Al Qaeda's Great Escape, p.72) The terrain they were defending is described by retired Lt. General Michael DeLong, former CentCom deputy commander, as "some of the roughest terrain in the world, at an elevation of around thirteen thousand feet, covered in snow and ice." (DeLong, Inside CentCom, p.55) To expect 700 American troops, as superbly trained and capable as they are, to launch a successful attack against a determined enemy force several times their number, in such impossible terrain, defies the imagination. Even with the overwhelming airpower at our disposal, the battalion from the 10th Mountain was simply not sufficient for the job. Therefore, a major part of the battle would have had to be "outsourced" to the Afghans regardless, which made winning the trust and cooperation of the local warlords a priority.

(I should point out that Smucker's account is bitterly critical of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon over the handling of Tora Bora in particular, and the Afghan campaign in general. Much of his evidence, however, directly contradicts his conclusions.)

2. Hence the decision to rely on the special forces approach. This decision was made not by the Pentagon, but rather by General Tommy Franks and CentCom, on the recommendation of the Special Forces commander in the field. (Smucker, p.60) As General DeLong explains:

Sen. Kerry didn’t know what happened. He’s no more better informed than the armchair generals who went after us (on TV.) And what was going on at the time, where bin Laden was in the Tora Bora caves, there was a tribal area that was full of civilians. You couldn’t go up there with soldiers of any force – especially us –because we would have been fighting them to get to bin Laden. Whether we would have gotten to him remains to be seen. This was a tribe on the border, and the only people who were accepted up there was the Pakistani army. You know how tough guarding a border is – with Texas and New Mexico and Arizona for example.

We didn’t kill any civilians unnecessarily up there. We know for a fact from our multiple intelligence sources that we wounded bin Laden. But yes, he did get away. If we had killed a number of civilians, our chances of getting elections in Afghanistan would have never happened. It was a diplomatic, not a political call. It was a call to get this country back together again. We knew the death or capture of bin Laden was important. But getting rid of al Qaeda and getting the country feeling good, feeling nationalistic, was important.

Source: The Command Post, "Interview With Gen. Michael DeLong", September 24, 2004

In other words, not only would using American ground forces not necessarily have worked, it might have backfired badly. Working with the Afghans, however disreputable they were, was not a choice; it was a necessity.

3. It is often argued that we could have proceeded with the special forces/Afghan approach, but simply used the battalion from the 10th Mountain as a blocking force to prevent the escape of bin Laden and the rest of the jihadists. According to Bergen in his Atlantic Monthly piece, there were three main escape routes from Tora Bora:

The young and the energetic took the difficult, snow-covered passes south toward Parachinar. Others took the road to the southeastern Afghan city of Gardez. Older fighters headed east into Pakistan.

In addition, DeLong notes that the caves at Tora Bora "have hundreds, if not thousands, of possible concealed exits, and we had no way of finding and closing all of them". (DeLong, p.56) Bin Laden and his followers knew the area well and had spread plenty of largesse around the local villages. Even had the 10th Mountain been used to block the three main exit routes, it seems highly unlikely that its 700 men could have prevented the al-Qaeda exodus.

4. Had the battalion from the 10th Mountain been deployed, it would have been difficult if not impossible to resupply or reinforce it. General DeLong points out that the high elevation of Tora Bora made it hard enough to resupply the several dozen Special Forces troops already there. (DeLong, p.55) Imagine how much more difficult it would have been to resupply 700 regular infantry scattered across likely al-Qaeda escape routes. Had one of the battalion's units gotten into trouble against a numerically superior jihadist force, as might well have happened, bringing in supplies and reinforcements could have proved impossible.

5. Even though many of the jihadists escaped Tora Bora, the battle still inflicted a grievous human toll on al-Qaeda. Survivors quoted by Smucker describe seeing trees filled with limbs as a result of the ferocious aerial bombardment. (Smucker, p.75, 118) As pointed out by General DeLong, bin Laden himself was wounded there.

6. Even if we had deployed the available American troops to block the main escape routes from Tora Bora, it wouldn't have mattered as far as catching bin Laden. He had already fled Tora Bora by early December, before the ground offensive got underway. To quote Peter Bergen:

Mashal told me, based on information he gleaned from radio intercepts, that "the Sheikh," as bin Laden is called by his supporters, departed Tora Bora in the first week of the American bombing campaign in that region, at the beginning of December 2001. According to Mashal, this information has been confirmed by Abu Jaffar, a Saudi financier who traveled to Afghanistan shortly before 9/11 with $3 million in charitable donations for al-Qaeda. Abu Jaffar, a fat middle-aged man with an amputated leg who described himself as an old friend of bin Laden's, told Mashal that once bin Laden had reached Jalalabad, he arranged for safe passage out of Afghanistan with the help of local tribal leaders.

The sources are unanimous that Osama bin Laden had prepared his escape route from Tora Bora weeks in advance, and had no desire to stick around and enjoy the fruits of martyrdom. He knew the area and had good relations with the local tribes. By the time the battalion from the 10th Mountain could realistically have been deployed, bin Laden was already in Pakistan.

In short, Senator Kerry's statement on Tora Bora drastically oversimplifies a complicated operational situation, and represents the worst sort of second guessing. For the sake of argument, though, let's assume that Osama bin Laden and every single jihadist present at Tora Bora had been killed or captured. Would that mean, as Kerry's debate comments so clearly imply, that the War on Terror would essentially have been won?

Absolutely not. According to Senator Kerry, the jihadists are "now in 60 countries", because they were allowed to "walk out of" Tora Bora. This is nonsense. The enemy was already in those 60 countries well before 9/11. Al-Qaeda is merely a small though important part of a worldwide Islamist terror movement committed to our defeat. As the 9/11 Commission report pointed out, up to 20,000 jihadists trained in bin Laden's Afghan camps between 1996 and 9/11. The number of those trainees who actually swore bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden and joined al-Qaeda was "no more than a few hundred". (Chapter 2, p.67) The infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, our main terrorist adversary in Iraq, has never sworn allegiance to bin Laden. The jihadist movement is a loosely-knit network spanning the Islamic world and, as noted historian Bernard Lewis has pointed out, its origins go back for decades if not centuries.

As to whether killing bin Laden is enough to defeat this movement, the following passage from the 9/11 report is particularly telling:

Early in 2001, DCI Tenet and Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt gave an intelligence briefing to President-elect Bush, Vice President–elect Cheney, and Rice; it included the topic of al Qaeda. Pavitt recalled conveying that Bin Ladin was one of the gravest threats to the country.

Bush asked whether killing Bin Ladin would end the problem. Pavitt said he and the DCI had answered that killing Bin Ladin would have an impact, but would not stop the threat. The CIA later provided more formal assessments to the White House reiterating that conclusion. It added that in the long term, the only way to deal with the threat was to end al Qaeda’s ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations.

(emphasis added-DD)

Source: The 9/11 Commission Report, p.348

Ending al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan is exactly what the Afghan campaign accomplished. If killing bin Laden wouldn't have been enough to defeat al-Qaeda before 9/11, it would hardly have sufficed afterwards. Even if we had eliminated every foreign jihadist in Afghanistan, a ludicrously improbable prospect, it would not have meant victory in the War on Terror. Contrary to what Senator Kerry implied at the debate, the current struggle is not a criminal manhunt for those who committed 9/11. We are at war with an ideologically driven global terrorist movement, decades in the making, determined to pursue our destruction. Defeating this enemy will likewise take years if not decades. The idea that a two month campaign in Afghanistan could possibly have been enough to win this conflict is the definition of wishful thinking.

The Afghanistan campaign was a necessary first step in the War on Islamist Terror. It was far from perfect, and mistakes were undoubtedly made. The criticisms voiced by Senator Kerry, however, are either highly disingenuous or incredibly uninformed. They betray a profound lack of understanding both of the battle of Tora Bora and of the broader war with Islamist terrorism.


Post a Comment

<< Home